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First Step Act could introduce criminal justice reforms

The First Step Act is of particular interest to people dealing with criminal sentencing in Texas, especially if they are in the federal court system. The bill has been backed by an unusual coalition of supporters ranging from President Donald Trump to longtime advocates of criminal justice reform. Widely understood as a compromise bill, the legislation has been criticized both for being soft on crime and for avoiding serious reforms that could change the inequalities built into the system. However, it is important for people to understand what changes may take place if the bill becomes law.

The bill could make a significant change for almost 2,600 federal prisoners who were convicted of crack cocaine offenses before 2010. In that year, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act to equalize sentencing for defendants convicted of powder cocaine or crack offenses. Before that time, crack offenses were much more harshly penalized, resulting in sharply disproportionate effects in African American communities. While sentencing changed for people moving forward, those convicted before the law was passed were not affected. The First Step Act would enable these people to petition a judge for release.

In addition, the bill also changes the way that mandatory minimum sentencing is handled in the federal system. It would make a significant change to the "three-strikes" law that mandates a life sentence for people convicted of three serious violent felonies or drug trafficking charges. Instead, the mandatory minimum sentence would be 25 years.

The criminal justice system can be a harsh place for defendants, and it can affect those convicted for years to come. For example, a criminal record could affect one's ability to find housing, education or even employment. A criminal defense lawyer can help a defendant challenge police and prosecution narratives and work to avoid a conviction.

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